U-M seeks feedback on principles in support of free speech


The University of Michigan is seeking community input on a statement of principles that reaffirms and reemphasizes its commitment to diversity of thought and freedom of expression.

Tim Lynch, vice president and general counsel, outlined the process for capturing community feedback on the draft principles during the Oct. 19 Board of Regents meeting on the UM-Flint campus.

“Having a clear statement of this institution’s principles on diversity of thought and freedom of expression is more important than ever,” Lynch said. “The principles on which we are seeking community input expand upon this institution’s commitment to freedom of speech as articulated in our 1988 policy, which remains in effect.”

The draft principles say, in part, “As a great public university guided by the letter and spirit of the First Amendment, we enthusiastically embrace our responsibility to stimulate and support diverse ideas and viewpoints in our classrooms and labs, lecture series and symposia, studios and performance halls, and among our entire community of students, teachers, researchers, and staff. When we disagree on matters of intellectual significance, we make space for contesting perspectives.”

Lynch explained that the draft principles were developed by and reflect the deep expertise of a distinguished faculty committee and reflect input from additional members of the faculty and university leaders. Lynch led the committee’s work over the summer.

Michelle Adams, the Henry M. Butzel Professor of Law and a committee member, said freedom of expression “is a bedrock principle, one that is essential to the core educational mission of the university and a well-functioning democracy.”

The draft principles also recognize that “free inquiry and expression can offend.” 

“Every member of our academic community should expect to confront ideas that differ from their own, however uncomfortable those encounters may be. We commit to these principles because they help us to create, discover and fulfill our vital mission,” the draft statement says in conclusion.

Lynch described a three-part process that would allow the university to have a renewed commitment to freedom of speech in place by the start of the 2024-25 academic year.

The first phase was the work of the faculty committee to draft the principles over the summer.

The second phase will be a period of gathering community feedback through an online survey that will be open through Nov. 2. Lynch said members of the Board of Regents and President Santa J. Ono would consider the feedback as part of their deliberations on the principles. 

The final phase will be the appointment of a second committee — made up of faculty members, students and staff — charged with examining the extent to which the university community is living up to the principles.

This group also would make specific recommendations on what the university can and should be doing better. This phase of work would be completed by the end of the academic year, giving the university time over the summer of 2024 to make any further adjustments before the start of the new academic year in August.

Lynch said these faculty members have been instrumental in the development of the draft statement of principles over the past several months:

  • Michelle Adams, Henry M. Butzel Professor of Law and professor of law in the Law School. Her research centers on race discrimination, school desegregation, affirmative action and housing law. 
  • Kristina Daugirdas, professor of law and associate dean for academic programming in the Law School. She teaches and writes in the fields of international law and institutions, and U.S. foreign relations law. 
  • Don Herzog, Edson R. Sunderland Professor of Law and professor of law in the Law School, and professor of political science in LSA. His main teaching interests are political, moral, legal and social theory, constitutional interpretation, torts and the First Amendment. 
  • Gabe Mendlow, professor of law in the Law School, and professor of philosophy in LSA. He teaches and writes in the areas of criminal law, criminal procedure, moral philosophy, political philosophy and the philosophy of law. 
  • Sekhar Sripada, Theophile Raphael Research Professor of Clinical Neurosciences and professor of psychiatry in the Medical School, and professor of philosophy and adjunct professor of psychology in LSA. His research investigates neurocognition, executive functions, and regulatory control across a range of psychiatric disorders.


  1. John Woodford
    on October 20, 2023 at 10:39 pm

    There’s a big push going on nationwide to rationalize and justify censorship. But the underlying motive of the would-be censor is to control what you’re being told while denying you the right for rebuttal. Despite all we’re hearing from “those who love the twilight,” as John Milton (see “Areopagitica”) called those who wished to impose a system of prior restraint on speakers who might challenge them, we are not being threatened by any exercise of freedom of speech and need no weakening of our rights.

  2. Silke-Maria Weineck
    on October 22, 2023 at 2:36 pm

    There is much to like in this statement, but its blind spots are troubling. I am particularly bemused by the fact that of the six committee members mentioned here, five are lawyers/law school faculty, along with one expert in psychiatric disorders. Surely, a statement expressing the institution’s values must be written by a group representative of said institution, not by a group heavily dominated by a single professional school?

    This seems particularly true when it comes to a statement endorsing diversity of viewpoints and perspectives, a principle hard to reconcile with the composition of the committee (nb: I am sure — and in some cases know for a fact — that the people listed here are of excellent good will and prodigious intellect).

    The current debates around free speech are complex, nuanced, controversial, and indeed inflected by viewpoint and perspective. I wonder if a committee more representative of UM communities would have had a more difficult time coming to agreement, exemplifying the very practices of dissent and debate the statement praises. The law and legal reasoning are important to these debates — but they do not exhaust them. And as an aside, our LS itself stands accused of having violated a faculty member’s free speech rights, an accusation supported by the expert opinion of a former White House chief ethics counsel.

    A different constituency might have paused at the recommendation that we “meet conflict and controversy with empathy and reason, refuting our opponents rather than refusing them a platform, and contesting their ideas instead of attacking their character.” That paragraph assumes an even playing field. Is a Jewish student to engage an anti-semitic instructor “with empathy and reason”? Can a Black staff member react to a racist supervisor “with empathy and reason”? How does a Muslim junior faculty member engage Islamphobic senior faculty who will decide on her tenure — “with empathy and reason”? A first year female law student, a professor who thinks women just aren’t cut out for the law?

    If we value freedom of expression, surely we do not want to limit such expressions to empathic and reasonable ones, particularly in cases were disgust and contempt are perfectly appropriate (and of couse, we will disagree on what those cases are). Civility is a secondary virtue, and demands for civility are frequently tools to silence those who have every reason to be uncivil.

    Perhaps the statement is not meant to guide interactions in hierarchical settings? Perhaps it is an oversight that it does not include openly discriminatory speech in its list of conduct we do not protect (“targeted speech that involves bullying, defamation, destruction of property, harassment, violence, or threats.”). But what interactions does it address? What does it add to the current SPG on academic and artistic freedom?

  3. Rebekah Modrak
    on October 23, 2023 at 11:42 am

    I fully support the university’s commitment to free speech and would love to praise this initiative, but we can only “stimulate and support diverse ideas and viewpoints” with a committee that fully represents our university community. Four faculty from the Law School and one from Neurosciences doesn’t reflect that diversity. Where are perspectives from the humanities, ethics, engineering, and the arts?

    It’s imperative we involve arts faculty in any conversations developing principles and “norms” about free expression. The two recent (and most widely publicized) challenges to instruction on campus occurred in the arts where expression of diverse ideologies, social and political histories, and feelings, is fundamental.

    We have a Faculty Senate Committee that advises the OGC (the GCAC, General Counsel Advisory Committee), made up of twelve faculty from Law, LSA, Disability and Accessibility Services, Engineering, Philosophy, Sociology, Social Work, Medicine, Chemistry, Public Health, and Medicine. Except for not having arts representation, the GCAC offers “diverse ideas and viewpoints” and is assembled to do exactly this sort of job gathering and drafting these principles.

  4. Michael Atzmon
    on October 25, 2023 at 10:03 am

    The Supreme Court’s Garcetti decision in 2006 limited First Amendment protections for public employees’ speech that is part of their job duties. A recent article in the Chronicle (https://www.chronicle.com/newsletter/the-review/2023-09-11) discusses the destructive effect of this ruling and its recent interpretations by lower courts. The ruling was used recently by an attorney hired by UM to argue that a faculty member had no first amendment protection when speaking as a member of SACUA, since such speech is part of his employment. Adoption of this view would clearly emasculate faculty governance. Is UM willing to make a clear statement that it is not going to weaponize Garcetti against faculty?

  5. James Grotberg
    on October 29, 2023 at 11:19 am

    Thank you for focusing on this important topic. I agree with others here that the committee seems rather homogeneous in terms of the expertise. But another issue would be about their perspectives which drive much of these debates. Are they politically diverse? The case in 2019 (https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2019/10/university-of-michigan-ends-bias-response-team-in-free-speech-lawsuit-settlement.html) UM lost concerning Bias Response Teams, which have subsequently been dropped, was driven by a conservative group. Did they understand something about the law which all of the UM talent in this area missed? Maybe put on of them on your committee? We now see lawsuits against public universities in California regarding mandated DEI statements for hiring, promotion, and tenure. Their view is it is compelled speech and viewpoint discrimination as impacted by the 1st Amendment. Where does your committee stand on this?

  6. David Baker
    on November 15, 2023 at 10:18 am

    Sorry to see that I missed the comment period for this. I think it’s great on the whole.

    It would have been good to see some stronger and more specific recommendations on a few points. Namely that UM policies on speech should be content-neutral; that student groups should be permitted to invite any speakers they choose without the threat of disruptions that prevent the students from hearing their chosen speakers; that UM should not seek to compel political speech either from employees or from job candidates; and that uncivil speech, while less than ideal in many circumstances, is to be protected as well (except of course in structured learning environments like the classroom).

    But the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good, and the statement as written is a good one.

Leave a comment

Commenting is closed for this article. Please read our comment guidelines for more information.